- By Reuben BrigetyReuben Brigety is dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University and is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. From 2013 to 2015, he served as the U.S. ambassador to the African Union and U.S. permanent representative to the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa. Previously he served as the deputy assistant secretary of state for African Affairs and also for population, refugees, and migration. He is the author of "Ethics, Technology, and the American Way of War."
The late U.S. Poet Laureate Dr. Maya Angelou once said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them!”
In other words, no one can hide his true nature. Never has this been more accurate for an American president than in the case of Donald Trump. Events in the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville have made this abundantly clear. For the first time in our history, a Nazi sympathizer occupies the Oval Office. His comments during a press conference on August 15 in which he spontaneously reiterated his support for white supremacist protesters left the world slack-jawed in disbelief and forced a stark moral choice upon senior officials in his administration: vigorously denounce the heinous views of the man they serve, resign in protest, or be forever linked to America’s first Nazi-supporting president.
By now, the facts of the current crisis are clear. On Friday, Aug. 11, torch-bearing white supremacists led by “Alt-Right” provocateur Richard Spencer marched through the campus of the University of Virginia, shouting slogans such as the Nazi-era rallying cry, “Blood and Soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!” On Saturday, Aug. 12, white supremacists bearing Nazi and Confederate battle flags massed in Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park. They were flanked by self-styled militia carrying assault rifles and semi-automatic pistols. A mixture of counter-protesters met them. Some were peaceful clergy members and students. Others were so-called “antifa” cadres, who exchanged insults with the white nationalists. By late morning, there were growing skirmishes between the white supremacist marchers and the counter-protestors. The worst of the violence happened at 1:14pm, when a 20 year-old Neo-Nazi named James Alex Fields Jr. of Maumee, Ohio, deliberately drove his Dodge Challenger through a group of counter-protestors, injuring 19 and killing 32 year-old Heather Heyer of Charlottesville. The day’s death toll grew further when a Virginia State Police helicopter monitoring the violence crashed, killing state troopers Lt. H. Jay Cullen, 48, and Berke M.M. Bates, 40.
President Trump’s response to the carnage in Charlottesville in the following days devolved from being merely shocking to positively revolting. In his initial public comments delivered during a press conference, he denounced the “hatred, bigotry and violence” that resulted in the death of one person and attributed it to “many sides.” He pointedly failed to condemn white supremacists in general or the murderous James Fields in particular — a fact that was celebrated for its “courage” by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.
The White House tried to control the bipartisan firestorm created by the president’s equivalence of Neo-Nazi White Supremacists with those protesting their message of racial hatred. On Monday, Aug. 14, he delivered highly scripted remarks from the White House in which he declared that “racism is evil” and “those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” Yet the next day, like a man who just cannot help himself, in more spontaneous remarks delivered at Trump Tower, the president reiterated the assertion he made two days earlier that there was “blame on both sides” and that among some of the Neo-Nazi protesters “were some very fine people.”
In essence, Trump definitively showed the world who he is. And we should believe him.
As a former U.S. ambassador and senior State Department official, I know that there is a particular obligation by political appointees not only to represent the interests of the American people but also to ensure that the policies and perspectives of the elected government of the day are implemented. In this sense, the role of such officials is qualitatively different from the dedicated career civilian officials across the government and from the uniformed personnel in our Armed Forces, who are expected to be studiously apolitical in the execution of their duties.
The unprecedented situation that we currently face, however, is that the elected government of the day is now led by a Nazi- and white-nationalist sympathizer. Unlike the unfortunate former White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, there is no way for senior Trump political appointees to evade this grim reality by hiding in the bushes to escape the moral weight of the choice that confronts them.
To their great credit, all four chiefs of the U.S. Armed Forces have explicitly issued comments via Twitter in recent days categorically denouncing racism and reaffirming the commitment of their respective organizations to values of respecting the fundamental equality and human dignity of all who serve. Yet such declarative statements loose their power when they are contradicted and undermined by the visceral racist utterances of the commander-in-chief.
While the uniformed military and civilian leaders in government must pull their punches when critiquing the chief executive, no such moral deus ex machina exists for political appointees, including Cabinet officers, ambassadors, assistant secretaries, and all such others who willingly joined the Trump administration to serve at the pleasure of the president. Either you challenge the president’s blatant racism, or you acquiesce to his repugnant views to the detriment of your credibility with those you lead and to your own sense of personal honor.
For those who occupy the highest offices of the land, I must reluctantly pose some difficult questions.
How, Chief of Staff John Kelly, can the parents of two African-American 82nd Airborne paratroopers killed in Iraq the day after the carnage in Charlottesville be assured that the deaths of their sons mean as much to the president as the tragic and heroic death of your own son in combat — when Trump defiantly and repeatedly equates white supremacists with those brave enough to confront their vile hatred?
How, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, can you convince the men and women serving in the greatest military the world has ever known, and who comprise virtually every creed and color of our great nation, that racism will not be tolerated in the ranks if you do not publicly and powerfully challenge the blatant racism of their commander-in-chief?
How, Gen. H.R. McMaster, can you convince the American people that you are using your position as national security advisor to protect them from the threat of terrorism abroad if the president you serve refuses to call the white supremacists the terrorists they are, rather than insisting that there must be some “very good people” among them?
How, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, can you convince the world that American values are a force for good in the world, and convince your own workforce who hail from every corner of our country to confidently project America’s image in the world, if you fail to publicly challenge a president who embraces the latter-day Nazi spawn of the greatest evil the world has ever seen?
How, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, can you have a shred of dignity when you look in the eye of your Senate colleagues (and the constituents they represent), who confirmed you for your post with the benefit of the doubt against decades-old charges of racial bias levied against you if you do not seize this moment to specifically and directly condemn the racism of the man who heads our government?
And how, gentlemen, can you continue to rationalize serving a man who so consistently tramples on the most basic values of our country that each of you, in your own way, has spent a lifetime serving? At what point does your duty to country lead you to confront the evil bigotry of the president, rather than trying to find a way to rationalize it so you are free to serve some greater good?
As much as each of these questions apply to you, they apply in equal measure to all of your deputies and subordinates that also occupy political positions of great responsibility in the service of our country.
History sometimes presents us with unpalatable choices whose consequences forever mark our character as individuals and define our destiny as a nation. Without question, now is such a time. In light of the president’s exposed racist character, only three choices remain:
- Condemn the president’s words directly and categorically, and risk the professional wrath of a man who prides loyalty to himself above all other virtues.
- Resign in protest, thereby refusing to abet the unreconstructed racist in the Oval Office but preserving your own personal honor.
- Continue to serve this fundamentally flawed man, and have to explain to your personal progeny and our national posterity why you chose to silently serve America’s first Nazi-in-chief.
The choices are clear, and they are yours to make. And so I ask, what will you choose?
Photo credit: DREW ANGERER/Getty Images